Judge Declines to Reinstate Federal Approval of Purple Line

The judge slightly alters his August ruling, citing Metro’s problems


via Maryland Transit Administration

U.S. District Court Judge Richard Leon maintained in a new opinion issued Tuesday that the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) must consider the impact of Metro’s recent safety and ridership issues before he allows construction of the Purple Line to move forward.

However, Leon did give supporters of the 16.2-mile light-rail line a shred of good news by ruling that the FTA could prepare a report about whether a new supplemental environmental impact statement is necessary, which Leon would then evaluate.

It’s not immediately clear how the long the updated ruling in a lawsuit filed by Purple Line opponents will further delay the project, which was scheduled to start construction this year. Without federal approval, Maryland can’t receive the full $900 million the federal government has allocated to the project. Also, workers are not allowed to construct anything permanent, according to project director Charles Lattuca of the Maryland Transit Administration.

Leon’s opinion states that several Purple Line stations will connect with Metro stations and that the original environmental impact statement prepared by the FTA estimated 27 percent of the Purple Line’s riders will also ride on Metro.

“As a result, the agencies’ categorical decision not to evaluate the significance of [Metro’s] new safety and ridership issues was arbitrary and capricious,” Leon wrote in the new opinion.

He also wrote in the ruling the FTA and the state of Maryland attempted to sidestep Metro’s issues and the effect they could have on the Purple Line by pointing out that the Purple Line won’t be operated or owned by Metro. Leon said the FTA and state relied “erroneously on the formal, legal distinction between WMATA and the Purple Line.” The Maryland Department of Transportation will have oversight of the project.

Opponents of the Purple Line previously cheered Leon’s original ruling in the lawsuit, which was filed in 2014 by the trail advocacy group Friends of the Capital Crescent Trail and Town of Chevy Chase residents John Fitzgerald and Christine Real de Azua. The plaintiffs raised a wide range of environmental concerns about the transit project in the lawsuit, but Leon’s opinions and orders have focused on Metro’s issues.

Leon wrote in the opinion filed Tuesday that he granted the FTA the ability to evaluate whether a supplemental environmental analysis that considers Metro's problems is needed because the department has the high level of technical expertise necessary to analyze the issue. Both the state and FTA have said they would conduct this review as “expeditiously as possible,” Leon wrote. If the FTA decides a new analysis is not needed, it will have to explain why in a court filing and Leon will then decide whether a formal supplemental environmental analysis is needed. The judge also ordered deadlines for the FTA to submit the assessment and for the plaintiffs to file their opposition to it.

Both the state and the FTA filed memos in opposition to Leon’s original August order, asking the federal judge to reinstate the Record of Decision so the project can move forward while the FTA evaluates the impact that Metro’s recent woes would have on the light-rail line. The state has argued that delaying the project would cost the state an additional $13 million per month.

Montgomery and Prince George’s counties also weighed in on Leon’s original order by saying further delay of the project would hurt the counties’ long-term transportation and economic development priorities.

The Purple Line is estimated to cost more than $2 billion to construct and about $5.6 billion over the 36-year contract the state has signed with the private team of construction and finance companies, Purple Line Transit Partners, which will design, build, operate and maintain the light-rail line.

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